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Column: When the story seems grim, rewrite the ending


Late last year a woman I know tweeted: “Great – subzero temps next week. Let’s just get this out there – 2016 has been the worst year ever!”

Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about 20 below zero either, but in Minnesota, putting on a jacket and hat hardly seems like the end of civilization. More recently, I saw another post on Twitter in which the writer said, “I’m just always mad now. Everything is garbage and it doesn’t need to be.”

The idea that 2016 was the worst year ever started circulating after several celebrity deaths (Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen) were followed by an election that did not go the way many people wanted it to. After that, the worst-year-ever meme became unstoppable, and in 2017, the drumbeat of decline has not stopped. Offhand, I can think of a lot of things that are worse than a cold winter day: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 1929 stock market crash, the Bataan Death March. But it’s true that things do feel worse than they actually are. Part of the reason lies in the 24-hour news cycle and its never-ending flow of bad news. As writer Jia Tolentino put it in The New Yorker, “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it. … Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them.”

Whatever the reason, the downbeat trend has accelerated among people of all political stripes, and it is noteworthy because it goes directly against the strongest current in American culture: our optimism, our sense that problems are meant to be solved and that solving them is our job. Since our country’s founding, America has been a can-do place, a place of possibility. Our creed has always been a certain sometimes naive faith that things will work out for the best. And for the most part – believe it or not – they have.

Contrary to what you might think, violence is at all-time lows, as is the rate of global poverty. War deaths are fewer than ever in history. On most indicators where you might think progress is not being made, the opposite is probably true. Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in a column in The New York Times: “2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity.” He continued: “Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.”

Likewise, in 2011 Steven Pinker pointed out in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the world is not more violent, more racist, more genocidal, or more unjust than in the past. He documented long-term declines in homicides, war deaths, executions, and lynchings, as well as massive gains in education, health, and wealth. He showed that diseases are not spiraling out of control. And humanity is not (yet) devolving into a Hobbesian state of nature. None of which is to say that things are perfect or that our progress is permanent. But the world is far more perfect than it used to be.

Yet many of us have given in to a pessimism, a hopelessness, a sense that things are going from bad to worse. Minnesota winters notwithstanding, it was shocking how many people rushed to declare 2016 the worst year ever, when in fact it was one of the best.

This disconnect between perception and reality was noted by sociologist Barry Glassner in his 1999 book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. In it he explored the growing distance between the things we fear and the reality of those threats. Throughout the 1990s, people became more afraid of crime, even as crime rates were falling. Other threats, such as road rage and child abduction, proved wildly overblown, while others – the satanic cult scare and Y2K, for instance – turned out to be entirely fictional.

Why this divergence? Why don’t we see things as they are? Glassner attributed this in part to “premillennial tensions.” But now the turn of the millennium is long past, yet the tensions remain. 

Another explanation is that this growing sense of decline is caused by something within us. Humans, as scientist and writer E.O. Wilson has observed, are the storytelling species. When we think about the past, we do not think in a steady stream of time. Rather, we think in terms of “episodes” that we link together, each one causing the next, like dominoes. This is true whether we are thinking about our life, our country, or our planet. 

Psychologists who study these things have identified patterns in the stories we see. In American culture, the dominant kind are “redemption stories,” in which a person faces loss, challenge, or difficulty, but overcomes it so that good emerges in the end. In his book The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, psychologist Dan McAdams argued that telling redemptive stories about oneself is linked to helping others. The opposite of redemptive stories are “contamination stories,” in which things start out well, then something bad happens, after which everything goes from bad to worse. The end.

In a fascinating study called “The Political Is Personal: Narrating 9/11 and Psychological Well-Being,” psychologists Jonathan Adler and Michael Poulin investigated why some people see redemption where others see contamination. They took accounts of nearly 400 people written two months after the 11 September 2001 attacks. They analyzed these stories and compared them against the results of those subjects’ physical and mental health questionnaires. What they found was that people whose stories of 9/11 included themes of redemption and closure also had higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of distress. People whose stories of 9/11 were high in contamination – something bad happened, then everything was garbage – showed higher levels of internal distress and lower levels of psychological wellbeing. In other studies, Adler found that redemption stories were linked to improvements in mental health over the next few years, while contamination stories were not.

In other words, the stories we tell ourselves matter, and what we see around us often says more about our inner world than our outer one. “There’s nothing objective about a contamination sequence,” Adler told me. “All lives have positive and negative things that happen in them. But it’s about how you parse time and draw connections.”

Does this matter? Does it affect anyone but the storyteller? The answer is yes: Stories are contagious, and negative stories even more so. But I think it matters for other reasons too. One reason is that a negative outlook doesn’t let us acknowledge the accomplishments of those who are doing good work: people fighting to eliminate polio, or end child marriage, or combat global warming, or conserve our water, or educate our children. 

But the most important reason that we shouldn’t let contamination narratives infect the rest of our stories is the simple fact that no problem has ever been solved by people who didn’t think it was possible to solve it. When we let the negative memes take over – when we consume them over and over online – they create a cage of despair from which we can’t see an escape. And this poses a real danger when it comes to problems such as climate change. It is a problem we can solve, as long as we don’t allow the “worst year ever” meme to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But we can influence both the stories we see and the stories we tell. “One of the empowering insights from the field of narrative psychology,” says Adler, “is that we are both the main character in our story and the narrator. So most of the day we go around being the main character, doing the stuff of our life. But when we need to, we can step out of being the main character and be the narrator – and revise the story if it’s not working for us.”

This is not always easy, but it is possible. So when the flood of bad news

threatens to wash us away, remember that things are better than they seem. Step away from the flow of despair before it ruins not only your present, but your future. Look around you and write a new story that reflects the world as you want it to be.

-- Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.

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